Personal productivity: what I’m using now

I am a bit obsessed with productivity and productivity systems. I listen to productivity podcasts and read productivity books and blogs. I enjoy learning how successful people organize their lives and their schedules: what’s their morning routine? how do they get their kids out the door? how much do they sleep? how do they approach setting goals and tracking their progress towards those goals? what tools and systems do they use and recommend? Perhaps this obsession with efficiency, and with systems in general, is why I studied engineering in college.

Productivity as a concept has come under attack lately, and I can’t say that I disagree with these points. I view productivity systems as a way for me to make sure I’m on top of, and making room for, what’s truly important in my life (both at and outside of work), and spending my limited energy doing things I value, and not tracking down things, notes, ideas, etc.

Since I love hearing about what works for other people, I thought I’d share a snapshot of what’s currently working for me. Maybe you can get some ideas for your own systems from what I do. And I’d love to hear about systems and tools and tricks that you’re loving right now, and how you use them.

Tools

I use a mix of paper and digital tools to keep on top of things. It’s easier for me to plan and mentally process things on paper, but features of digital like tagging and alarms keep everything organized. My workflow involves writing things down and then transferring them to some cloud-based tool. At first glance, this might seem inefficient, but I’ve found that transcribing allows me to engage with my notes on a deeper level, to see patterns and connections I didn’t previously notice, so it’s definitely worth the time I spend on it.

My low-tech tools include:

Notebook with daily intentions and to-do lists.
My current daily notebook, with the big-ass paper calendar in the background.
  • A daily notebook. I use notebooks in various parts of my life — one as a lab notebook, one dedicated to leadership work, one to record craft project ideas and sketches, one as a journal — but I use one notebook as my catch-all planner and meeting note taker. My daily intentions and to-do lists go here. Meeting notes go here. Things I want to remember from a conversation, or from whatever I’m reading, that need to be transferred somewhere else later, go here. It’s also a good place to jot down those “oh, I need to do this” thoughts that like to intrude while you’re in deep focus mode. I’ve tried daily paper planners before, but I really like the non-structure of the notebook, so that I can tweak my daily format as much as I’d like as the mood arises.
  • A big monthly paper calendar. At the start of every term, and summer, I sit down to plan out my goals for that term. I can’t plan unless I can “see” the time laid out, so a few years ago I bought a big-ass paper calendar. I put any important dates on there, work and home, so that I can keep those in mind when scheduling projects (for me and for my classes). In the summer, I put the kiddos’ summer camp dates, which helps me see when I have child care coverage and how much coverage I have. Once my planning is done, I lay out the pages for the term-in-progress on a long desk surface in my school office that otherwise would be wasted space, so that again, I have a visual representation of the term and know what’s coming up.

My high-tech tools include:

  • Evernote. This is my digital catch-all. I transcribe meeting notes and put them here (along w/ meeting agendas), so that I can tag and organize them. Clippings of articles I’ve read and want to revisit, or want to read later, go here. Ideas for classes I’m currently teaching or will be teaching go here — which comes in handy when, say, you only teach your signature elective once every 3 years. I keep my notebook system simple: home, school, research, and STEM Director. (I do need to clean up my tags, though — they are getting a bit unwieldy!)
  • Todoist. I adore lists, and particularly to-do lists. I had a hard time finding a digital to-do list keeper that works with my brain, but Todoist is pretty much perfect for me. Minimal interface, and allows me to categorize by project and assign due dates.
  • Google calendar. With all of the hats I wear at work, and with 2 busy kiddos (and both my husband and I with active hobby lives too), having a digital calendar is basically a necessity. It’s also much easier to schedule meetings when someone can see when I’m free and when I can see when they’re free, since who has time for 10 back-and-forth emails setting up a time and place to meet?

Systems/habits

As much as I love my tools, it’s the systems and habits that keep my life from spiraling into chaos. (Well, most days anyway. Having kids means you can only control so much. Having a kiddo with special needs means every day is going to have some degree of chaos, and every day’s chaos will be different.) The habits remind me to pause and reflect and not just run from one thing to the next, which is my natural inclination.

Here are the habits and systems that currently work for me:

  • Daily meditation. A few years ago when I went back to therapy, my therapist strongly suggested I try meditation as a way to manage my depression and anxiety. (They even led me through a short meditation at one session, which I thought was cool.) Now, if I don’t start my day with 10 minutes of meditation, I feel lost, uncentered, and unfocused. I use the Headspace app and love it, but there are many other good ones out there too.
  • Daily intention setting. I don’t remember where I got the idea for setting daily intentions instead of starting the day or week with a long and loosely prioritized to-do list, but that’s been a game-changer for me. (You can see a couple of examples in the image of my daily notebook, above.) When new tasks come in, I weigh them against my intention/priority list for the day before deciding whether to tackle or table that task. The 3 limit forces me to prioritize AND be realistic about my available time. Listing my intentions in my daily notebook allows me to go back and see patterns: what days were hard for me? what days’ lists were too ambitious? Bonus: I’ve retrained my brain (most days) to acknowledge that I’m not a terrible person if I didn’t meet all 3 intentions — it just means I was not cognizant of what the day held when I set those intentions.
  • One sentence journal. I think this idea came from one of Gretchen Rubin‘s books. I love the idea of journalling, but not the (self-)expectations around journalling (the journal has to be a complete record of your life and feelings, etc). But committing to writing at least one sentence a night about the day? That’s easy. So, I write at least one sentence in my journal every night before bed, reflecting on something that happened that day. Often I end up writing several sentences, but if I’m mentally exhausted I’m only on the hook for one. Keeping even such a minimal journal has actually been super beneficial for recognizing patterns in my depression and anxiety, which means my therapist and I can figure out better systems for keeping that in check. And it’s a great way to remember what happened last year, 2 years ago, and so on.
  • Sunday night meeting. I got this idea from NCFDD originally, the idea of sitting down with yourself and your calendar and all of those notes you took during the previous week on various projects and figuring out how you’re going to spend your time and energy the coming week. Sunday nights work because it’s a good way to transition from the weekend to the work week, but I’ve also done this first thing Monday morning, or sometimes even Sunday morning, if Sunday’s heavily scheduled. I also use the time to make sure I’m working towards the goals I set at the start of the term, and to readjust goals and timelines if necessary.

As with everything, my systems and tools are a work in progress. I suspect in 6 months at least one of these tools or systems will change — but for me, that’s part of the fun!

End of summer musings on (lack of) rejuvenation and (too much) service

Summer is supposed to be a season of rejuvenation for academics. While research and service obligations remain, we get a break from teaching. Theoretically, since teaching is the major part of my job, this should mean that my summer schedule is (a) more low key, (b) more relaxing, (c) less time consuming, and (d) less stressful.

This summer, my schedule was none of these.

In retrospect, it was a perfect storm. By the end of spring term, I was exhausted and completely burned out. However, I went right from spring term into finals grading frenzy and graduation, and from that right into working with my (amazing, wonderful, and extraordinarily productive, thank god!) undergraduate research students. (I finished my grades on a Friday, went to graduation on Saturday, and was in the lab with my students on Monday.) I had a couple of major service tasks that carried on into the summer, one of which took up about 3 orders of magnitude more time and 4 orders of magnitude more drama than I anticipated. I had the drama of submitting a paper at the last minute, finding out it was accepted at the last minute, and then having to create and ship a poster off overseas since I couldn’t travel to the conference (see: last minute notification). And I once again taught in our CS program for high school students (while juggling the paper drama, service drama, and supervising undergraduate research). Oh, and chairing a department, unfortunately, does not take a hiatus during the summer.

What this means is that I’m still burned out and exhausted, and I’m worried about being in this state of mind going into the new academic year. However, the good news is that we’re on trimesters, so we still have a few weeks before the fall term starts. (Whew!) Also, next week I finally, FINALLY, get to take a break (although, sadly, not from email, since we’re too close to the start of the year). While I know this won’t completely rejuvenate me, it’s a start.

One of the silver linings of the Summer of Craziness is that I’ve done some serious reflection on the ways in which I commit and overcommit myself. By the end of the last academic year, I was burned out in general, but mainly burned out on service. The service activities I did that used to bring me joy were now causing me stress, either because the workload was larger or different than I’d been led to believe, or because people weren’t sharing the load equally. I also took on too much, because I misestimated the lifecycles of various projects. I’ve since quit the activities that were no longer bringing me joy, and said no to a bunch of requests that have come in recently. (I’ve discovered a magic phrase: “I am overcommitted, but here’s the name and contact info of someone who might be able to help.”)

Jettisoning a lot of this service work has been very freeing. And it’s allowed me to jump on an opportunity that really excites me. For a while, I’ve been lamenting that I don’t have time to volunteer in my kids’ lives. Now I do, and so this year I’ll be co-leading my daughter’s Brownie Girl Scout troop! I should note that this is something that’s a bit out of my comfort zone, and there have been moments that my co-leader and I have said to each other “what did we get ourselves into?”, but I am super excited to do something totally different in the name of service, and be a role model to younger girls. My daughter is excited, too, and happy that we’re doing something we both share and believe in together. And who knows, maybe we can work some CS concepts into one of the badges or journeys or whatever!

So this year, after my much-needed and much-deserved break, I’ll return to whip my syllabus into shape, help our new faculty member settle in, advise our newest students, and figure out realistically what the attention span is of the second grade set. And that is a challenge I’m really looking forward to.